L to r: Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Odette) and Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (Agnès) portray sisters, and award-winning actress Lizan Mitchell (Beartrice) portrays the matriarch of the Albans family in Berkeley Rep’s world première of Marcus Gardley’s The House that will not Stand, a comedic drama about free women of color in 1836 New Orleans. Photo: kevinberne.com

The world première of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, commissioned by Berkeley Rep, is an exciting event. Not only is Gardley a nationally known, award-winning poet/playwright who teaches theater at Brown University, but he is also an East Oakland native who attended Castlemont High School before graduating from San Francisco State University and the Yale School of Drama.

Gardley’s ambitious, engaging, witty and hectic two-act play, set in New Orleans in 1836, relates the story of Beartrice Albans (wonderfully acted by Lizan Mitchell), a free woman of color, who entered into a common-law marriage, referred to as plaçage (from the French “to place with”) with the white and wealthy Lazare (Ray Reinhardt).

In this formal arrangement, acknowledged in New Orleans while it was a French colony, a mother negotiated a contract for her daughter to live with a rich white man. At the fancy Quadroon Ball, white men mixed with young Creole women with the intent of finding a placée.

Typically, the mother received a large sum of money, and the daughter received a house, funds to provide for her and her children, and a bequest at the man’s death. Twenty years after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, however, American laws favored the white wife over the placée, notwithstanding the man’s wishes.

As the play opens, Lazare has died suddenly and mysteriously. Beartrice wants to enforce a six-month mourning period on her household, preventing her three daughters, sex-crazed Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) romantic Odette, (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), nun-like Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez) from attending the Quadroon Ball. Agnès, who already has a young man in mind, is frantic and makes plans to sneak out to the ball.

L to r: Harriett D. Foy (Makeda) and Joniece Abbott-Pratt (Odette). Photo: kevinberne.com

Yet, Beartrice knew what her daughters did not — being a “free” woman of color puts a placée much higher on the social scale than a slave, but she is not truly free. Beartrice hoped that, with a bequest from Lazare, her family could move to a respectable life in color-blind Paris.

Although the plot doesn’t sound terribly amusing, the funny characters, their witty repartee and speedy pace of the play will make one laugh. The creative and detailed two-story set allows characters to chase up and down the stairs. The most comical character is the family’s slave/maid, Makeda, played by terrific Harriett D. Foy. She is reminiscent of the hilarious Pseudolus, the slave yearning for his freedom in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the wily, commonsensical Moliere servants who run their household. But they don’t practice voodoo, as Makeda does.

There are many important ideas and plot twists in his play. Often they are original and noteworthy, but sometimes competing and conflicting. Combining the comic with the sad can leave an audience confused. Yet, Gardley’s Oakland origin and his family’s early New Orleans roots give The House That Will Not Stand a significant authenticity. The characters’ yearnings for freedom, as they each understand it, are universal and timeless.

The House That Will Not Stand runs through March 23, 2014. For information and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...